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TRAVEL JOURNAL INDEX > Climb Flies When You're Having Fun

Lake O’Hara, British Columbia, Canada  08/09-11/06 (Day 106-108)
Climb Flies When You're Having Fun

There are a lot of things that are really wonderful about traveling with no plan or itinerary. If we love a place, we can stay for as long as we like. If we don’t love a place, we can move on immediately. If we get a hot tip about something to see or do that wasn’t even on our radar, we can go check it out on a whim.

The only bad thing about such spontaneous wandering is that we can’t plan ahead. And, so, we find ourselves on the phone at 8am praying to get lucky enough to snag one of the precious camping site permits that Parks Canada sets aside for a small number of last minute hopefuls, such as ourselves, who failed to book their sites in advance.

But we are far from the only ones after these permits. In fact, the Lake O’Hara region is so popular that Parks Canada turned it into a restricted access, permit-only area to reduce human impact on the place. This, of course, simply makes us want to get in even more.

The first morning that we call the permit lottery line we get through to the automated machine and are put on hold to speak to an operator. Then we get disconnected and spend the next 40 minutes frantically hitting re-dial in vain. The following morning we get smart and begin calling on both of our cell phones, but neither of us gets through at all—just  a solid hour of busy signals. Finally, on the third morning, we get through and snag ourselves permits for the bus transport into Lake O’Hara and a camp site. We’re in!

The campground has two comfortable cooking/eating shelters with roaring wood stoves, handy food lockers plus a storage room for larger items, a bonfire pit, clean toilets and a sink/washing area. The sites themselves have raised tent pads and, though they’re close together, there are enough trees to create a little privacy. Pretty swanky, really.

But it’s not like we’re going to be hanging out at the camp site all day because the whole point of getting into Lake O’Hara is to hit the trail. The mother of them all is the Alpine Circuit which is really a series of trails strung together—some of them literally carved and coaxed into the rocky sides of the glacial valley. According to Kathy and Craig Copeland—authors of Don't Waste Your Time in the Canadian Rockies: An Opinionated Hiking Guide to Help You Get the Most from This Magnificent Wilderness—the Alpine Circuit just isn’t complete if you don’t start by ascending to the Wiwaxi Gap. Did we say ascend? We meant scramble straight up on all fours.

After a deceptively languid little stroll around the shore of lovely Lake O’Hara, the trail gets down to business, eventually gaining more than 1,700 feet in less than a mile. This gets us sufficiently warmed up for the next distinct section of the Alpine Circuit, the Huber Ledges, a vertiginous trail dreamt up by a bunch of engineers and stonemasons. Really. The thing is scratched into the sheer side of the rocky valley wall and, in places, would give a mountain goat pause.

 Then it’s down off the ledges and over boulders the size of Cooper Minis toward the valley floor, then back up onto another slightly saner section of ledges that skirts along the other valley wall. It’s a heart pumper alright.

Back at camp we both have that satisfyingly tired feeling—a well-earned fatigue that is just shy of exhaustion. No rest for the wicked, however, since we have to get up with the sun and head to the Grand View trailhead. A restricted area within the larger Lake O’Hara restricted area, the Grand View trail bisects one of the main animal migration corridors in the area so it’s only open to the first four groups that sign in each day.

We hit the trail where it begins alongside the Le Relais Day Shelter warming hut, travel past the Elizabeth Parker Hut and just outpace a large group of Japanese hikers to reach the Grand View trail cut off  where we sign in as group number one of the day.

Despite its promising name, we get only a fleeting glimpse of the summit’s Grand View of McArthur Lake (which we were hoping to hike to later in the afternoon) and Victoria Peak from the top before clouds roll in and a light rain begins to fall. By the time we get our jackets and Mountainsmith packs back on, the rain has upgraded to a pounding, relentless hail of ever-increasing size.

The final quarter mile to the summit was steep and slippery on the way up even before the hail started and the rapidly accumulating white balls make the descent positively treacherous. Concentrating on getting down this perilous section then through the rest of the trail keeps our minds off our soaked pants, which we attempt to dry by staying close to the wood stove back down in the Le Relais Day Shelter warming hut for the rest of the stormy afternoon (along with two dozen other steaming, pungent, soaked hikers).

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